What The Dying Might Be Saying
On Sunday, when Shawnee Smith interviewed my father and me at the parish crawfish boil, I learned something from him that I had not known. We sat side by side, on that bench you see above, with a camera on us, and at some point my dad started talking about his father, and eventually my dad told the whole story about his ghostly visitation from his father, after the old man’s death. That story I knew. What I didn’t know, or more likely had forgotten, was that he had seen Ruthie after her death. Not immediately after her death, but maybe a year or more later. He told Shawnee that he had been sitting on his back porch, drinking a cup of coffee one morning, looking out over the yard in the distance to Ruthie’s house, when he glanced to his left. There was Ruthie, sitting in the porch swing next to him, smiling at him. Clear as day, he said — and then she was gone.
In Little Way, I wrote about how Ruthie had appeared to me just before we moved to Louisiana three months after her death. I had had a dream that seemed more vivid than a normal dream. Here’s how I told it in the book:
One night, just before dawn, I dreamed that I was standing in the living room of our Philadelphia apartment, surrounded by boxes, wrapping paper, and all the accoutrements of our impending move. I heard the door open downstairs, and someone walking up the stairs. It was Ruthie. She was wearing a white sweater with a collar gathered close around her neck, and carrying a tin of muffins.
“I thought you were dead!” I said.
“Oh, I am,” she said sweetly. “I just wanted to tell you that everything is going to be all right.”
“Thank you for saying that. Will you stay for a while?”
“No, I need to get on back.”
Then I woke up. The dream had been unusually vivid, far more intense than usual. When I woke up, I wasn’t sure if I was still inside the dream, or not.
At breakfast, I told Julie about the dream. “Of course she brought muffins,” Julie said. “That’s just like Ruthie.”
“Maybe it really was her,” I said. “But I know how much I need to believe everything is going to be okay down there. I might have imagined it. I probably imagined it.”
Matthew stumbled out of his room and trudged to the kitchen for his coffee milk, in his groggy morning manner. When he heard us talking about a dream, he said, “The weirdest thing happened in my room last night. I woke up and felt someone in the room with me, sitting in the chair next to my bed.”
“Who was it?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I was facing the wall, and was too scared to turn over and see.”
“Did the presence feel threatening?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “It was just watching me.”
“I think that was Aunt Ruthie, checking on you,” I said, and told him what had happened to me during the night.
You may say: You needed to believe everything was going to be okay, so that dream was wish fulfillment. Maybe so. But here’s the thing: Ruthie didn’t own a sweater like the one she wore. Moreover, I didn’t discover until after I returned home that one of Ruthie’s closest confidantes during her cancer fight had dreamed that Ruthie came to her in her house with a similar message — and was wearing the same sweater. Make of that what you will.
I bring this up because reader Coleman Glenn, who is a pastor in Canada, passed along this link to a CBC radio interview with Patricia Pearson about her new book, Opening Heaven’s Door: What The Dying May Be Trying To Tell Us About Where They’re Going. (That’s the link to Barnes & Noble’s website; it’s the same book, but the American subtitle is more clinical.) Pearson, who does not come from a religiously observant family, was inspired to write the book after her cancer-ridden sister had an uncanny experience and vision the night their father died in another city — a vision that helped the sister meet her own death in peace. Here’s a short except from the first chapter of the book, which you can read by following the CBC radio link:
For a subset of this tribe–perhaps half of its members–something else unites them as well. Even more quietly, almost invisibly: the sense that we have encountered a radical mystery. We have learned from the dying about additional channels of communication that we hadn’t been aware of before, that enable us to know things in mysterious ways, to connect in mysterious ways with one another, with the dying and with the dead, along uncharted or long-forgotten paths.
The sense that the dying might open a door to us that leads elsewhere came first in hushed confidings. During the summer and fall of 2008, people began to tell me things. Some were friends and colleagues I’d known for years; others were people who sat beside me on an airplane or met me for the first time in a bar. If I told them what I’d witnessed with my father and sister, they reciprocated. Almost invariably, they prefaced their remarks by saying, “I’ve never told anyone this, but . . . ” Or, “We’ve only ever discussed this in our family, but if you think you might do some research . . .” Then they would offer extraordinary stories about deathbed visions, sensed presences, near- death experiences, sudden intimations of a loved one in danger or dying. They were all smart, skeptical people. I had had no idea that this subterranean world existed all around me.
Pastor Glenn adds:
I haven’t read the book or anything else by the author, so I can’t comment on it beyond what I heard on the radio. I do know that in my experience as a pastor, her comment that 50% of the bereaved experience the presence of their deceased loved ones sounds about right. As I think I mentioned in a comment on one of your posts on supernatural/paranormal experiences, I was taught in seminary to a.) let people know that they’re not crazy if they have some kind of experience of their loved one, and b.) not to worry if they DON’T have that kind of experience, since not everyone does, and if they don’t, it’s not an indication that they should’ve been closer to the person.
Pearson’s book is a well-researched argument that we have no business telling people their “spiritual” experiences are simply products of longing or wish fulfilment or rattled brains, in the same class as hallucinations. We have no business telling them this not only because we are polite but because these experiences are not in fact delusions. In their utter clarity and coherence and intensity, near-death experiences as related by Pearson defy the increasingly feeble attempts of dogmatic materialists to explain them in scientific terms.
You talk about “nearing-death awareness.” What’s that?
Hospice staff see subtle shifts of consciousness. People start talking in symbolic language about their dying. They’ll say, “I need to go shopping now,” or “Get my shoes. I’m going home.” In my sister’s case, she made references to airplanes taking off. (Katharine died later in 2008.)
Another facet is the tendency to interact with an invisible presence. They see someone already deceased and chat with the person. When that happens, hospice nurses say the person is going to die soon. There are subtle elements that make it distinct from brain-based hallucinations.
How is it different?
It doesn’t have a random quality. Someone may hallucinate about an elf in the corner. But they don’t react to the elf per se. With nearing-death awareness, it alters their sense of things and they react. They’ll say something like, “I am going now. This person at the end of my bed is going to take me away.” And they will die in the next 24 or 48 hours.
How does medical science explain this awareness?
It doesn’t. Theories have been offered related to morphine, but careful research finds no correlation with medication. If anything, it’s correlated with less medication and less brain disease. People whose brains are clouded with tumours are less likely to have those clear visions.
We’ve heard about near-death experiences, about a white light. What else might happen?
In interviewing people with NDEs, I found it was much more complex. There’s a moral quality. The experience of light isn’t visual, it’s an experience of dissolving into light that is also love and wisdom. They merge into this consciousness. Another detail that sometimes happens is the exposure to self-reflection. You experience the harm you’ve done to other people from their perspective.
Light that “isn’t visual,” but rather “an experience of dissolving into light that is also love and wisdom.” Sounds like Dante’s Paradiso. It sounds like what Orthodox theology calls theosis, the end goal of our journey: to be dissolved into God, while remaining ourselves.
As longtime readers know, Ruthie’s dream prophecy did not come true for me here. Things haven’t turned out all right, though I’m getting there. But Ruthie was wrong, and I have wondered for a while if that wasn’t simply wish fulfillment.
But after this weekend with Shawnee and her film crew, I’m wondering for the first time in a long time if Ruthie might have really come to me, and if she will, in the end, have been right. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Anyway, the veil is much thinner than we normally think. People are afraid to talk about it. But it’s true.